Before the Zune HD and what is assumed to be the third-generation iPod touch are released to the touchscreen DAP/PMP-adoring public this month, let's take one last look at Sony's X Series Walkman before it's completely overshadowed and forgotten. The company's WiFi-enabled flagship player, which features an OLED touchscreen and built-in digital noise cancellation, received more positive attention when it was locked under glass at CES 2009 than after it was released in mid-June, so to say that the X Series has not been a mainstream success is quite the understatement.
But just because the masses haven't embraced it doesn't mean the player isn't any good. In fact, during the past few weeks that I've been using it, the device has become my favorite daily-use DAP because of its stellar sound quality and simple interface.
Since time is of the essence, I've decided to deviate from my standard review format and lay out what I consider to be the best and worst reasons to buy the X Series Walkman instead (full specs here).
Best Reasons to Buy the Sony X Series Walkman
Sound quality. The number one reason to consider the X Series is its sound quality. According to my Ultimate Ears triple.fi 10 Pro canalphones and my ears, this is definitely one of the best-sounding media players on the market right now. I say this based on lossy codecs and the default sound setting with all EQs and audio enhancements (VPT Surround, DSEE Sound Enhance, Clear Stereo, and Dynamic Normalizer) disabled. The player has replaced my Cowon S9, which I've been using for 8+ months and have ranked above the Sansa Clip and Fuze in terms of sound quality; to my ears, then, nothing sounds better than the X Series. It's rich and full, bright and balanced, sparkling and warm.
Even with the included earphones (MDR-NC020, shown above), which are required for use with the well implemented digital noise canceling feature, the Walkman sounds fantastic. The audio enhancements are more useful with these buds as well (they sound slightly unnatural with the triple.fi), so if you're not a hardcore audiophile or an overly nitpicky listener, you'll have little reason to invest in a better pair.
Build quality. Quality is rarely an issue with Sony products and the X Series is no exception.
The player has a substantial heft to it and is made of metal, plastic, and glass that all work together to produce a geode-like design: rough rock-like texture on the edges, smooth/glossy front and back flecked with glitter.
Nothing on the device feels like Sony skimped on any of the materials; everything is tight and solid.
Touchscreen. In addition to the player's 3-inch OLED being positively stunning in terms of colors, brightness, contrast, and viewing angles, the touchscreen is incredibly responsive.
Swipe gestures, kinetic scrolling, and simple taps are registered immediately and accurately, making the touch experience fast, enjoyable, and frustration-free.
Hardware controls. One of the nice features about the X Series, especially for those who like to operate their players from within their pockets, is that it includes a full set of hardware controls.
From the large hold switch and home button to the volume rocker and playback buttons (back/rewind, play/pause, next/fast-forward), the Walkman can be used blindly when listening to music and podcasts. Another nicety is that the hold switch can be configured to disable accidental operation of the entire device or just the touchscreen.
User interface. Though the player's UI lacks customization beyond selecting a background photo, its simplicity and navigational considerations make it a highlight.
The home screen is nothing out of the ordinary, so what makes the interface intuitive are all the little details that eliminate unnecessary tapping and backing out of menus.
Just as the alphabet strip/index at the top of music lists lets you find a particular song/album quickly, the icons always present at the bottom of the Now Playing and list screens make searching through your music library efficient as well.
Tapping the magnifying glass icon brings up a context menu that allows you to browse your music by All Songs, Album, Artist, Genre, Release Year, Playlists, and Folder.
Another nice function is the globe icon, which launches a Related Links screen that lets you select the artist, song title, or album and search for the keyword on YouTube and Yahoo! oneSearch.
You can see the UI in action in one of the many video demos available on YouTube.
Slacker Radio. In addition to the standard FM tuner, the X Series also features a dedicated Slacker app that caches up to three custom streaming radio stations that can be accessed even when not connected to a WiFi network. Custom stations must be created on a computer, but refreshing them occurs directly on the player via WiFi. A basic Slacker account is free, while a paid subscription is $3.99/month and offers unlimited song skips and requests, no ads, and complete lyrics.
The Slacker interface is just as straightforward as the standard Now Playing screen, with rating icons (heart and ban), artist/album/song information, EQs, and VPT/DSEE sound enhancements all accessible from the playback screen.
YouTube. As with the Slacker app, YouTube is nicely integrated and enjoyably usable on the X Series Walkman. Along with the intuitive Related Links tie-in with the music playback screen mentioned earlier, a dedicated icon on the home screen provides quick access to YouTube.
You can browse Featured and Most Viewed videos, search by keyword, and even find related videos to the one you're watching. Standard quality videos load fairly quickly (depending on your network connection) and play smoothly in landscape mode.
Battery life. The X Series Walkman doesn't offer the longest battery life, but 33 hours for audio and 9 hours for video (depending on settings and usage) is still impressive and more than enough for most users. I use the player solely for music and have only charged it twice in the past few weeks.
Included accessories. At a time when most DAPs/PMPs are bundled with the bare essentials, the accessories included with the X Series almost seem luxurious.
In addition to the premium headphones (with three sizes of silicone tips), which are already a nice bonus, the player comes with a cradle attachment, proprietary USB cable, audio input cable, airplane plug adapter, software CD, and requisite paperwork.
Worst Reasons to Buy the Sony X Series Walkman
Web browser. The absolute worst reason to get the X Series Walkman is for its NetFront web browser. Compared to mobile browsers on modern devices like the iPod touch, Archos 5, and various smartphones, NetFront on the X Series is appallingly bad.
Sony should honestly be mortified to have released a product in 2009 with a browser like this.
Its lack of support for Flash, streaming media, uploading/downloading files, and inability to render complex sites without choking notwithstanding, the browsing experience is tedious and unpleasant due to T9 text entry, terrible view modes (Normal, Just-Fit, and Smart-Fit) for anything other than mobile versions of websites, zoom functions that are not always accessible, manual screen rotation, and low screen resolution.
Some could argue that a pathetic web browser is better than no web browser at all, but I disagree. The X Series would be better served without a browser, as its implementation is laughable and shows little sign of any thought or effort having been put into it. Why bother if you're not even going to try, Sony? We all know from using NetFront on the mylo 2 that you're not completely incompetent or oblivious to the competition.
The WiFi implementation on the X Series Walkman really should have been limited to Slacker and YouTube. Sure, consumers may have complained about the lack of a web browser, but it would've been better to leave them wanting more than feeling disappointed and disgusted.
Price. A premium price tag has always been associated with Sony products, so if bang-for-your-buck and great value are what you're after, the X Series is not for you.
Priced at $299 (16GB) and $399 (32GB), the Walkman is $100 more expensive than the Samsung P3 and Cowon S9 (arguably its non-iPod competition) and exactly the same price as the much fuller featured second-generation iPod touch, which will probably get a price cut when the third-gen is announced next week.
Video support. Although the gorgeous OLED screen seems ideal for watching movies and other videos (if you don't mind the 3-inch screen size), getting videos successfully transferred to the X Series is generally not a simple matter of drag-and-drop. Unlike the Archos 5, Samsung P3, and Cowon S9, which will play just about anything (DivX and XviD included), the Walkman is limited to a few video codecs that often require a run through conversion software.
The sound quality alone justifies the inclusion of the Sony X Series Walkman in my collection. Yes, it's overpriced and the web browser is complete and utter garbage, but I think the player has a lot going for it too. Slacker and YouTube integration, outstanding build quality, responsive touchscreen, stunning OLED screen, and a straightforward user interface are all stand-out features worthy of recognition.
So even though the X Series will probably be knocked completely off the grid when the Zune HD and new iPod touch are released in the coming weeks, my ears are happy that it's here now.
The Sony X Series Walkman is available now from Amazon and other retailers.